PAT NEAL: The return of fire season

“ALL YOU NEED is three days of hot sun,” the old logger said, “to make the woods dry enough to burn.”

By now, we’ve had more than three days of sun and the woods are so dry you can smell the hot fir and spruce pitch.

It’s like a toxic perfume that hints at a danger that is not unlike sitting in a house with a basement full of dynamite.

The history of the Pacific Northwest is a history of fire.

These devastating natural disasters have swept through the country since time immemorial.

The most devastating forest fire the Olympic Peninsula ever saw occurred long before there were any loggers or stump ranchers to blame.

About 120 miles of coastline between Willapa Bay and Lake Ozette burned, leaving standing dead cedars as a witness to this pre-historic disaster.

It may have occurred during the Medieval Warm Period, when from 900-1300 A.D., the Earth’s climate warmed up enough for the Vikings to settle in Greenland.

The Peninsula may have been exceptionally dry.

The fire could have been started by lightning or the Native American practice of setting fires to maintain the prairies where camas was dug and game was lured by the fresh growth.

We’ll never know.

All we know for sure is this cataclysm was followed by an even more devastating disaster, the arrival of the Europeans.

Fires became more frequent.

James Swan described a Fourth of July on Shoalwater Bay in 1855, where the oystermen filled a cedar stump that was 60 feet around and 20 feet tall with dry spruce limbs as part of the celebration.

The party agreed they had never had a “pleasanter” Fourth.

The fire burned the surrounding forest until extinguished by the winter rains.

In 1890, a fire above Sequim was started by a homesteader who tried to burn out a neighbor.

The wind shifted and burned west to the hills above Port Angeles.

Old photographs of these towns show bare hills in the background.

In 1891, a homesteader set fire to some logging slash to clear land for a blackberry patch that burned about 3,000 acres between Lake Quinault to Neilton.

These fires were nothing compared to the darkest day in Olympic Peninsula history, Sept. 12, 1902, when the sky went dark at noon from a conflagration burning in Oregon and Washington from the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean.

Known collectively as the Yacolt Burn, it was a perfect firestorm caused by everything from boys burning a hornet’s nest, a locomotive, campers, berry pickers, loggers and lightning.

The Olympic National Forest was created in 1905 to control wildfires with a series of ranger stations, fire lookouts, shelters and fire tool sheds connected by trails and phone lines throughout the Olympic Mountains.

With the completion of Highway 101 between Port Angeles and Forks in 1923, motorists started chucking cigarettes out the window.

That’s how the 12,000-acre Sol Duc Burn of 1926 started west of Lake Crescent, burning 11 miles to Bear Creek in five hours — incinerating trees that had been planted in the previous Sol Duc Burn of 1907.

That was nothing compared to the Forks Fire of Sept. 20, 1951, when buried, smoldering logs from an earlier fire that was supposed to be out were fanned into flames by an east wind that pushed the fire 18 miles west in eight hours.

It burned 38,000 acres and almost incinerated Forks before the wind shifted and saved the town.

Now we’re faced with an early fire season with record temperatures and an east wind.

Be careful.

The forest you save could be your own.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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